by Jacob Kiernan
I remember the first time I visited the Lotusland, Paris. I was eight, my brother was four, we stayed in the Regina and spent most of our time playing rigged amusement park games at the Jardin des Tuileries. In fact, anytime we weren’t shooting bb guns or inhaling cotton candy, we were probably sulking.
The one exception to our ennui was the Musée Rodin. I couldn’t get enough of Rodin’s La Porte de l’Enfer, a tremendous gateway covered in hundreds of contorted, hellish figures. I would stare at the statue of St. John the Baptist for hours—a larger-than-life bronze, walking forth without arms or head—momentous and kinetic.
One of Rodin’s students questioned him about his belief that an artist should always copy nature with the greatest sincerity. A photograph of a man walking would show one foot raised off the ground. Rodin’s St. John stand both feet flatly on the ground. Rodin responded, “It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop” (Rodin on Art and Artist page 34). The statue was more real than real life—it captured the nature of movement in time.
On another continent, and in a different century, Joel Shapiro continues with figural sculpture, for which he has recently been awarded the Sculpture Center’s 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Shapiro’s early work presented simple, geometric, miniature homes. Eventually, his work became more figural. While remaining abstract, he used bronze and wooden beams to build oversized, humanoid forms. Often painted in distinctively bright colors, on which his wife, the painter Ellen Phelan, advises him, the figures were posed actively running, jumping, and twisting.
As one of the vanguards of abstract sculpture, Shapiro’s figures reduce the human form to its most essential components. Seeing his sculptures, in some sense, reminds me of the statue of St. John the Baptist. Yet there is also something distinct. In comparison to St. John, Shapiro’s sculptures seem to ape motion, instead of bringing it to life.
St. John’s impossibly-extended muscles conform requirements of the medium, grounding the figure, while stretching the limits of sculpture’s ability to express time and motion. Akin to Henri Cartier Bresson’s jumper, Rodin turned a three-dimensional sculpture into something more: movement, temporality, a living form. St. John represents the fourth dimension.
Shapiro’s Disney-like success, sustained throughout a lifetime, is no trick of slight. But, ultimately, his figures are more of an elaborate balancing act than a representation of time or motion. Nonetheless, the near infinite reproduction, and mass proliferation of his work, is, in itself, a movement that cannot be denied.